In recent years, several discovered fossils of theropods and early birds have filled the morphological, functional, and temporal gaps along the line to modern birds. Most of these fossils are from the Jehol Biota of northeastern China, dated between approximately 130.7 and 120 million years ago. Among them are many fossils of troodontids, which are considered as the closest relatives of birds. Previous reported troodontid species include Mei long, Sinovenator changii, Sinusonasus magnodens and Jinfengopteryx elegans. Now a new troodontid, Jianianhualong tengi gen. et sp. nov., has anatomical features that shed light on troodontid character evolution.
The holotype (DLXH 1218) is a nearly complete skeleton with associated feathers, and is inferred to be an adult. It is estimated to be ∼112 cm in total skeletal body length with a fully reconstructed tail, and its body mass is estimated to be 2.4 kg, similar to most other Jehol troodontids, such as Sinovenator. The skull and mandible are in general well preserved, and has a relatively short snout and highly expanded skull roof. There are probably 21 maxillary teeth and 25 dentary teeth on each side of the jaw. The vertebral column is nearly completely represented and the tail is ∼54 cm long. The furcula is poorly preserved, and the humerus is ∼70% of femoral length. The manus is typical of maniraptoran theropods, and measures 112 mm in length. The pelvis is in general similar to those of basal troodontids, with a proportionally small ilium, a posteroventrally oriented pubis, and a short ischium. A phylogenetic analysis places Jianianhualong in an intermediate position together with several species between the basalmost and derived troodontids.
The tail frond of Jianianhualong preserves an asymmetrical feather, the first example of feather asymmetry in troodontids. Feathers were once considered to be unique avialan structures. Since the discovery of the feathered Sinosauropteryx in 1996, numerous specimens of most theropod groups and even three ornithischian groups preserving feathers have been recovered from the Jurassic and Cretaceous beds of China, Russia, Germany, and Canada. These feathers fall into several major morphotypes, ranging from monofilamentous feathers to highly complex flight feathers.
Evidence indicates that the earliest feathers evolved in non-flying dinosaurs for display or thermoregulation, and later were co-opted into flight structures with the evolution of asymmetrical pennaceous feathers in Paraves, therefore, the discovery of tail feathers with asymmetrical vanes in a troodontid theropod indicates that feather asymmetry was ancestral to Paraves.
Xu, X. et al. Mosaic evolution in an asymmetrically feathered troodontid dinosaur with transitional features. Nat. Commun. 8, 14972 doi: 10.1038/ncomms14972 (2017).
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